How M. Night Shyamalan Innovated Out of a Career Slump
When it comes to last minute plot twists, more often than not, modern film audiences think of Hollywood director M. Night Shyamalan. He exploded on the scene back in 1999 with The Sixth Sense, and followed up that success with two more in Unbreakable and Signs. But as quick as his rise to success was, so also was his fall. In the string of box office disappointments that followed, his movies went from shocking to patently predictable. To many — perhaps even to Shyamalan himself — he was in a slump.
Shyamalan fell prey to one of the classic missteps some successful people make. Once he hit on a winning formula, he repeated it over and over. Big Hollywood investors like recycling their triumphs and rewarding those writers and directors who are willing to go along. And indeed this strategy brought Shyamalan a string of successes and notoriety for a while. But it also made his movies feel stale and formulaic, which audiences tend to dislike. His “signature style” became an artistic crutch, and audiences that had acclimated to his plot twists began looking elsewhere for surprises.
The new celebrity status Shyamalan initially enjoyed also opened up new doors, and gave him access to other high-level experts to work with on his movies. These people likely also had formulas of their own that they reused over and over. With everyone’s personal success strategies locked in, it’s likely Shyamalan encountered a lot of resistance to trying out new methods and taking creative risks. Some of these experts may even have actively challenged Shyamalan’s visions for his movies, because maintaining their career status and satisfying investors likely took precedence over artistic desires.
Shyamalan’s success, and the influences and choices that resulted, isolated him from those things that made him a success in the first place. He no longer felt like need to take risks, or experienced the constraints of small budgets and the pressure cooker of a drive to prove himself. But when he didn’t deliver, Shyamalan was panned by critics and his movies lost millions at the box office. By “playing it safe,” he went from next-big-thing to all-washed-up.
Developing processes and systems is great for building efficiency, teaching others and expanding teams. But when it comes to maintaining one’s expert status, what worked for us last time might not work again. The world is constantly changing and adapting to what has come before, and if we don’t factor in new circumstances and meet them with inspiration and innovation, a process or strategy that was once reliable can quickly become a liability.
Happily, Shyamalan was up to this challenge. Seeing the rut he’d dug for himself, he recognized that he needed to find a way to rekindle his creative storytelling spark. He decided to innovate himself out by rejecting all the comforts of success. First, he chose to fund future projects with his own money. This financial pressure quickly brought him back to living on the edge. Next, he cast actors and hired production staff who were just beginning their careers. Whether they had only completed a few films or none at all, Shyamalan made certain he had not worked with them before. This forced everyone to innovate around how they would work together, and kept creativity on the set fresh.
The effect of these self-imposed constraints transported Shyamalan’s mindset back to the days of The Sixth Sense. By putting his own money on the line and surrounding himself with professionals with fewer procedural crutches, he created an atmosphere of risk and fostered a collective drive to beat the odds.
With this new method for making movies, Shyamalan has quietly redeemed himself as of late. The refreshing horror/thriller hit Split was a surprise hit at the box office; Shyamalan spent $10 million, but it’s earned $138M domestic and $275M worldwide, putting Shyamalan back in favor with finicky Hollywood.
The twist here is that Shyamalan’s winning formula wasn’t the surprise plot twists. It was the creative energy that surrounded him early in his career that lead to the powerful storytelling. Understanding what elements of life help our own creativity and ingenuity to flourish, while also adapting to changes in our environment, is critical to maintaining a pattern of high-quality results over time.
Rather than racking up some wins and resting on our laurels, we can better maintain and improve our results by breaking up our comfortable positions with periods of risk taking, and then incorporating those new learnings into our craft. By employing and repeating this tiered approach of risk, learn, and incorporate, we keep ourselves sharp and in step with the world around us.
What was once exciting in your life that now feels boring? How has your physical or mental environment evolved to make your standard behavior stale? What’s one risk you can take this week to better adapt to the current landscape and reinvigorate this aspect of your life?
“In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” — Mark Zuckerberg